From Enrollment to Learning: The Way Forward

Jacques van der Gaag and Vidya Putcha


In an earlier policy brief, Where is the Learning? Measuring Schooling Efforts in Developing Countries, we drew attention to what was labeled “the global learning crisis.” While tremendous progress has been made over the past couple of decades to get tens of millions of additional children to enroll in school, progress in improving learning outcomes has been considerably less impressive. Although, shockingly, comprehensive learning outcome data are not available for most of the developing world, the many small scale, local or, in some cases, national studies that have been done show a dismal picture. For instance, Uwezo, an East African initiative, found that in Tanzania, only 44 percent of students in Grade 4 were able to read a basic story from Grade 2. Similarly, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) facilitated by Pratham found that in rural India, less than half of Grade 4 students were able to do basic subtraction. These examples demonstrate the gravity of “the global learning crisis” as students fail to master competencies appropriate for their grade level, hindering the development of life skills and success in further schooling, as well as performance in the labor market.

With about 61 million children in the developing world still not yet in school, it is too early to declare victory on the “enrollment agenda”. But we would do a disservice to the 250 million children around the world who fail to reach Grade 4 or attain minimum learning standards, if we don’t step up efforts to improve learning outcomes.

This policy brief is part of a larger effort to link resources in the education sector with outcome measures. As we have documented elsewhere, few countries systematically collect comprehensive financial data on education, although fortunately an increasing number of initiatives is trying to address this issue by producing, for instance, National Education Accounts (NEAs). When the focus of the sector changes from enrollment to enrollment plus learning, efforts to better grasp the size and use of financial resources should evolve accordingly. For instance, much learning takes place outside of the classroom, especially in the early years. For NEAs to be a useful tool for adjusting the allocation of scarce resources, the “learning” sector should be defined more broadly than the education or “schooling” sector. We will address this and related issues in a subsequent policy brief.

Once our focus becomes enrollment plus learning, we have to broaden our view and look at the entire environment in which a child develops skills, starting with the households in which children are born. It has beenknown for many decades and throughout the world, that among the best predictors of future school performance are some basic household characteristics, such as income and mother’s education level.

Data from international assessments also show a relationship between income and educational performance, exemplified by intra and intercountry results. In Colombia, average Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) math scores at Grade 8 for the richest quintile of students were close to 100 points higher than those from the poorest quintile. On the other hand, the difference in average scores between the poorest quintile in the United States and the richest quintile in Colombia was about 50 points. Income is not the only predictor of success, as exemplified in Peru, where children whose mothers have completed primary school and whose maternal language is Spanish rather than an indigenous language, have a greater probability of reaching the appropriate school grade for their age. In Kenya, Uwezo found that the higher their father’s educational attainment, the more likely children were able to read a story at Grade 3 or attend extra tutoring sessions.

In addition, the larger environment (such as the village or the urban neighborhood) in which the young child grows up also has a major and lasting impact. In Tanzania, urban students in Grade 3 are three times more likely than their rural counterparts to meet standards in literacy and numeracy. Related to the impact of the larger environment, data from Nigeria suggest that girls are more disadvantaged in school attendance, as parents may be reluctant to send girls to school because of perceived fears for their safety while traveling and concerns about the physical strength required for walking the distance.

Clearly, especially in the early years, most learning takes place outside of the classroom. Consequently, children who grow up in deprived circumstances will start life with a disadvantage leading to a lack of learning in the early grades, which will have lifetime effects.

In the next section, we will summarize the evidence that the early years (ages 0 to 5) are crucial for subsequent learning achievements. From this evidence we conclude that many of the problems with learning outcomes in the developing world (and in many developed countries) need to be addressed well before school age. Before delving into what happens in schools, we explore the relationship between enrollment, learning and dropout. As the crux of this brief is to lay out the evidence on what contributes to learning, we must acknowledge the factors leading to low enrollment and dropout. Next, we turn our attention to what happens in schools and what can be done to improve these activities, as well as try to summarize the evidence about the relationship between specific school-based inputs and learning outcomes. As it turns out, this evidence is, in many cases, rather feeble. Therefore, we will first focus on school-level inputs that are necessary for a good learning environment, i.e. without which we cannot expect any learning to take place. Most of these inputs are rather obvious, but they are worth mentioning. Subsequently, we will discuss additional inputs that have proven to contribute to learning outcomes in some cases, but not in others. Clearly how these inputs are applied matters.


Next, we address factors that contribute to learning outside of a formal environment, after which we review issues in health and nutrition that are closely linked to learning outcomes. We then review the need for the collection and dissemination of learning assessments in order to impact further improvements in these areas and we try to answer the question: what are the building blocks for an education sector that promote learning? Finally we explore needs for future research in learning.